Julie Kanya on the Nobel Prize parody that’s more than just a joke

Ah, late September: that time of the year synonymous with the first signs of winter, the official start of a new Academic Year and the intellectual buzz generated by the announcement of the Nobel Prize winners. Ever since 1901, the Nobel Prize has been awarded to ground-breaking, breathtaking, and generally outstanding achievements in areas such as physics, chemistry, literature or peace. Laureates include many distinguished names: Marie and Pierre Curie, Theodore Roosevelt and Rudyard Kipling, just to mention a select few. Nevertheless, as every silver cloud has its lining and the Oscars have the Razzies, the scientific community did need a funny reminder that there’s also an ironic side to life: ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the Ig Nobel[1] Awards!

Set up in 1991 (so it did take about 90 years for scientists to find the amusing side of things), this American parody of the Nobel Prize aims to reward ten highly unusual or purely trivial accomplishments in scientific areas that reflect their more noble counterparts. Every year, these prestigious distinctions are scheduled to be announced towards the end of September in a ceremony held at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, and are awarded by the scientific humour magazine ‘Annals of Improbable Research’. Maybe it won’t surprise you to find out that they’re presented by a group that also includes Nobel Laureates. Their stated aim is to provide food for thought as well as entertain: it is worth mentioning that in 2010 Andre Geim became the first receiver of both prizes, which simply goes to show that some spoofs may have a hidden serious side as well.

And now a bit more about this year’s laureates. In physiology, the prize was awarded to a team of researches which concluded that there is no evidence to support the existence of contagious yawning in the red-foot tortoise. And if biology is your thing, you’ll be happy to hear that the distinction in this field went to two Australians who discovered a certain type of beetle that mates only with a particular kind of beer bottle (namely, a ‘stubby’). A Japanese team of scientists were awarded the prize in chemistry for their arcane invention: a wasabi alarm (basically, they determined the ideal density of airborne wasabi needed to awaken people in case of an emergency). The prize in mathematics was collectively handed out to those who have predicted numerous Raptures and Apocalypses (including the one on October 21st 2011…) for teaching the entire world just how important it is to make careful mathematical assumptions and calculations. Even though all of these important contrivances merit worthy distinctions of their own, my personal favourite remains the literature award, given to John Perry of Stanford University and his theory of structured procrastination (more about this in a subsequent edition, because it is a topic worth discussing in great detail).

All things considered, maybe this article has got you wondering if all of these things are real. The answer is: YES. Google them. And you’ll be amazed to find out exactly just how much extensive scientific research concentrates on mundane aspects of life or on trite little details many of us tend to ignore on a daily basis. It’s a funny world that we live in, isn’t it?


Julie Kanya

Image Credit – The Library of Congress

[1] Ignoble = not honourable in character or purpose. Just putting it out there…